For the first time this month, much of the University’s student population doesn’t have direct representation on a local governing body.
The district known as 2A08 is the only sector of the Foggy Bottom and West End Advisory Neighborhood Commission that relies on a student to represent a constituency, which is nearly entirely comprised of GW students – aside from University President Thomas LeBlanc’s on-campus residence. Former commissioners said the COVID-19 pandemic drained the area of potential candidates, and the district will lose a voice that has elevated students’ interests for years.
“What makes 2A08 unique is that it’s effectively a 100 percent student district, where nearly 100 percent of the residents living in that district are undergrads at GW, and so that has a particular importance due to the impact that the students have,” said Peter Sacco, the executive director of the Foggy Bottom and West End ANC, who served as a student commissioner for 2A08 from 2013 to 2015.
The 2A08 seat has not been vacant since 2013.
Sacco, an alumnus, said the empty seat marks the first time the ANC has faced a vacancy immediately following a general election, and the commission is consulting with the D.C. Board of Elections to determine how to fill the seat. The BOE typically allows ANCs to fill a vacancy mid-cycle, next January, but city officials suspended the process during the pandemic because each commission must hold an in-person election to fill a seat, he said.
Sacco said he expects “a lot of advocates” to press city officials to help fill the vacancy, but lawmakers might be too distracted with other “big issues” surrounding the pandemic or recent riots to prioritize a solution.
“The city is facing a lot of big issues with the pandemic right now, and unfortunately I don’t think that addressing these vacancies is the highest priority right now,” he said.
Alumnus James Harnett, the most recent representative of 2A08 who became the youngest chair of an ANC in D.C. history this summer, called for city officials to install a crosswalk on H Street and bike lanes on 20th, 21st and G streets during his tenure. Harnett, who spoke with a few students considering running for the seat last year, said the pandemic pushed them home, leaving them unable to run for the seat.
“COVID-19 is what happened and with only about 500 students on campus this past semester, there simply weren’t enough people that were here that interested that would have been able to run for it,” he said.
Harnett said the seat can facilitate greater physical change in Foggy Bottom, like infrastructure improvements and public safety measures like new crosswalks. Harnett used his position on the ANC to vote for expansions to the Capital Bikeshare system, sidewalk extensions and a project that would renovate part of Pennsylvania Avenue.
“If we don’t have somebody at the table, to fight for those priorities in this district, we’re not going to see the sort of change we need to see, to keep people safe in our neighborhood, to make living here more affordable, to make sure that the government is really working for young people,” Harnett said.
When he was a student commissioner, Harnett would speak with students during meetings on campus to share neighborhood updates, gather student feedback and relay input back to other commissioners.
Harnett said Yannik Omictin, a senior who emphasized student engagement ahead of his election to the ANC’s 2A01 seat in the fall, will help keep student interests in mind on the commission during his tenure. Omictin represents a district that includes residential buildings, like Mitchell and Thurston halls.
“I expect folks like Yannik Omictin, who is a GW student and is elected in a district that is majority students while not being a universal student district, will step up to the plate and make sure that the views of young people and students are represented in these conversations,” he said.
Harnett said Omictin’s election still isn’t necessarily enough to amplify student voices, as Omictin “needs allies” like other students to fully represent their peers’ interests.
He added that community improvement projects unique to 2A08, like new outdoor space for GWorld vendors, likely won’t slow down due to the vacancy because other commissioners will step up to the plate instead.
Eve Zhurbinskiy, a former student commissioner who served 2A08 from 2015 to 2017, endorsed a plan to give students unlimited Metro passes – a measure the University ultimately shot down – and advocated for the installment of a helipad at the GW Hospital. She said the helipad’s construction, which Harnett urged the Student Association to support through a D.C. Council testimony, underscored the significance of student advocacy on neighborhood issues.
“This is really an opportunity for whoever’s the student commissioner to really represent the voices of the student body and the community and kind of work on issues that impact students,” she said.
Zhurbinskiy, an alumna, said the seat is critical because it allows a student commissioner “to work on issues that impact students” and represent the needs or concerns of the student population at ANC meetings while not many students would be otherwise invested in the neighborhood.
“A lot of students don’t get involved locally in the community, and they’re focused on classes or they’re focused on national politics, which is all well and good, but that is a way to amplify student voices and make them heard in a broader community, and that’s why that seat is so important,” she said.
Zhurbinskiy said since most students vote in their home state and don’t pay attention to local D.C. politics, not many know enough about the ANC to launch a bid for 2A08, but she’s interested in speaking with anyone willing to learn about running.
“What happens on the ANC-level in Foggy Bottom can impact students in their day-to-day lives, whether that’s deciding how late in the night construction on campus can continue or discussing how to make H Street between Kogan and Marvin safer for pedestrians,” she said.